What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Budapest and the Danube

It had been a long 16 hours in a packed train from Bucharest, Romania, and I was very relieved to finally pull into Budapest East railway station, Hungary, around 10pm. From there it was a short walk to my accommodation, and after a snack and a shower, I was ready for bed.

Next morning my well-travelled friend Polly, an expert in all things European, messaged me to see if I had arrived ok.

‘Are you staying in Buda or Pest?’ she asked. ‘In Budapest.’ I replied. ‘Yeah but which bit?’ ‘Over near the East railway station.’ ‘Is that in Buda or Pest?’ ‘Is that a trick question?’ ‘No.’ ‘Eh?’ ‘No it’s not. Do you know if you’re in Buda or Pest?’ ‘I dunno. Maybe I’m in Pestabud.’

Polly explained what she was on about: ‘Originally three towns were merged, Buda, Pest, and Obuda. Poor Obuda got omitted and forgotten. Otherwise the city might have been called Pestobudabuda, Obudapestbuda, Obudabudapest, Budaobudapest, or Budapestobuda.’

Confused, I did a little research. Turns out, to understand how Budapest came to be named Budapest, we need to go back to the 19th century. The whisper ’round the Danube is that officially unifying the neighbouring cities of Buda, Pest and Obuda was first mooted back in the 1830s.

Budapest and the Danube
Looking south down the Danube. Pest to the east; Buda to the west; Budapest is the place that I love best tutti frutti

Buda, located on the west side of the Danube River, and Pest, on the river’s east bank, were considered twin cities. They were casually referred to as Pest-Buda, because Pest had a larger population than Buda, and in those days might was right. (Although it would also eventually be absorbed into the trans-Danube metropolis, Obuda, situated in a little wedge between northern Buda and the Danube, was the the smallest of the three and didn’t even get a look-in when it came to naming rights.) However ‘Pest-Buda’ was only the start of the naming story, and a barney* over what the city should be called when the three towns were officially united went on for yonks**.

Apparently the name ‘Pest’ was problematic, as in German it refers to the Bubonic Plague. An officially christened Pest-Buda would obviously run into some marketing problems, so that name had to go. Count Istvan Szechenyi, a nobleman who encouraged political reform in Hungary and did much to modernise its infrastructure, suggested ‘Honderu’. (In one source I found Honderu translated as ‘home serenity’, which makes it sound a bit like a homeware’s store.) This name possibly failed to get any traction as it was too similar to Honduras. Or more likely because it was pointed out to Szechenyi that Honderu sounded like honte des rues in French, which means ‘shame of the streets’.

The Danube, Hungary
On the Buda side of the Danube looking across to the Pest bit of Budapest

So people just went on referring to the twin cities as Pest-Buda, despite the unfortunate association with the Black Death. That was until some cartographers realised that if you were to write the name Pest-Buda on a map, the name ‘Pest’ would be on the left hand side (ie to the west), and the name Buda would be on the right (east). Now this wouldn’t matter particularly save for the fact that as we have seen, the town of Pest was actually located to the east of the Danube, and Buda to the west. Stay with me people. Now apart from some bloke up the back who tried to resurrect Honderu, it was decided that to save geographic confusion ‘Buda’ should be placed before ‘Pest’. So Pest-Buda became Buda-Pest.

It was still nearly thirty years until the official unification of Buda, Pest and Obuda, and when the day finally arrived in 1873, it was decided to include Margit-sziget (Margaret Island) as well. I could find no record of anyone piping up at this juncture and suggesting that perhaps ‘Margit’ should also be included in the new city’s name, as presumably everyone had had a gutful of the whole naming saga by then. So the unified city was officially called Budapest (the hyphen having been dropped a while back), and still is, to this very day.

Having sorted out that I was staying in the Pest part of Budapest, and how Hungary’s capital got its name, I felt I was ready to get out and explore the city.

*Barney is an Australian slang term for a fight

**Yonks is an Australian slang term for a long time

Learn more about Budapest here

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